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Practicing

Off and running!


My son Toby started taking piano lessons a few months ago. He's 6 years old and we have seen him start to really show an interest in music this year. We'll probably start Isaac with violin any day now and then I'll have two guinea pigs. Despite being the younger brother, Isaac's a very persistent 3 (almost 4) year old and reminds us often that he has wanted to start lessons "since he was a little boy".

I have been looking forward to starting them for some very selfish reasons. As a teacher, a large part of my job is helping parents and students find ways to make practice a habit at home. What better way to improve my teaching than to experience the daily task first-hand?

In my studio I've seen most families have a honeymoon period with their new instrument, lasting anywhere between 6 to 18 months. With Toby, we are definitely in the honeymoon period. He loves practicing so far. His challenges involve focusing on the task in front of him. He is only good for maybe 20 minutes in a row, so I've been trying to fit one or two of those in a day rather than trying to force him to sit longer. This helps us both keep it productive & engaging.

Through Toby, I've been confirming my belief that more practice sessions per week begets more enjoyment of the instrument. This in turn makes him more likely to practice. Kind of a no-brainer, but still it's nice to have your own kids confirm your methods. The more interesting revelation, though, is that I've also confirmed that this is an impossible concept to transmit to him by anything but his own direct experience. In other words, telling him over and over that he'll like it more the more he puts in regular practice time will not actually help him "get it". We do use a written practice log and lots of stickers. We choose rewards together, and I try to sprinkle them throughout the practice rather than having them be a reward for completing it. We have already had him "perform" several songs for friends, grandparents and babysitters and he is particularly proud when they affirm all his hard work. We've looked for ways to show him other children playing the instrument either online or in person.

One small note about that practice log. At this point, it's at least as much for me as it is for him. If I don't have it in my schedule, in writing, it is very easy for all those little interruptions that make up life to put it right out of my mind.

Toby is still at the very beginning of his studies but he doesn't really register that fact. He looks at piano like all of the subjects he's working on. His job is to focus and improve. My job is to help him learn how to do that job.

The Teacher's Perspective: Practicing, Performing, Perception.


Apathy can only be overcome by enthusiasm, and enthusiasm can only be aroused by two things: First, an ideal which takes the imagination by storm, and second, a definite intelligible plan for carrying that ideal into practice.
~ Arnold Toynbee


This weekend my husband Jonathan and I herded our two boys out the door for a trip downtown. Every week I get an update from a local free-activities blog in my Google Reader (www.aroundthesunblog.com), and the Cirque de Soleil festivities at Pioneer Square caught my eye. I saw the show a few years back and was completely smitten. Here was a great way to introduce the kids to these artists.

The trip for us is an event in itself. We live in Beaverton and Toby (age 4) has a serious fascination with trains, so naturally we took the Max. Piling Isaac, age 2, into his somewhat outgrown backpack/stroller and taking Toby by the hand we bravely made our way to the platform. We haven't taken the train as much since Isaac "Mr. Dramatic" Ward came along. Up till now he just has not enjoyed sitting in his stroller for the duration of the trip on the train, so we abstained as an act of mercy to the other passengers. Today he was a stellar patron, chatting with the skateboarding tweens and charming any middle-aged men he could get to look up from their iGear. He always picks the toughest audience, just to keep things fresh. We were pleased and relieved to avoid melt-downs, blow-outs and tears.

Getting off at Pioneer Square, we were met by some funky gypsy-esque music and saw a small crowd beginning to form in the square. The Cirque folks, faces painted and wearing all black, were giving away candy and popcorn, painting faces and generally clowning around. Several young women weaved through the crowd on stilts and unicycles. In the center of the square there was a performer hanging from two ropy strips of fabric, twisting them around her body and her body around them in miraculous ways; a single serving of ballet tangled in red curtains. Toby, clearly enthralled, said, "Can we go to a restaurant and eat some lunch now?" I kept pointing at the ridiculous beauty hidden just above his head, but it took a lot of convincing (and a bucket of free popcorn) before he wanted to sit and watch the show.

Why am I telling you all this?

It got me thinking about young kids and their perception of what exactly makes a "feat". What is a creative accomplishment? What makes trained performers so amazing? Why are we moved by such creativity?

I knew the boys would be captured by the performance if they were given some ways to really understand what was going on. We sat and talked about what the high flying rope artist was doing- specific things like how she pointed her toes, and general things like how graceful she was and how she never stopped moving. We mimicked her a little with our arms out like willow trees. We talked a lot about how strong her muscles must be and how she must know just what the ropes feel like so she doesn't slip or lose her balance. I wondered aloud how many times she practiced just the tiny motion of wrapping the rope around her ankle like a harness so she could stand on air. We clapped with the crowd at each new move (the clapping is always Isaac's favorite part). When she was done, we let the boys walk near the frame she had been swinging on, to see how high it really was.

My point is, I think it takes some understanding of the details of a performance to really appreciate it. This is something we can teach our kids in many everyday ways. It doesn't have to be a musical performance you explore & explain in order to benefit your musical child. Emphasizing and valuing the diligence, details and hard work that go into any performance can give kids more motivation to work. It can get them through months of trying to master "Song of the Wind" or a whole term focusing on how their wrist is moving around the instrument. Or even sustain one through endless lifelong painstaking student-loan acquiring work on the bow hold. Did I say that out loud?

Jonathan and I made a small sacrifice of time & train fare and took a minor risk of exhaustion or meltdowns to get our kids in contact with some neat performances. Parents who choose music lessons for their kids make much larger sacrifices of time, money and energy to put their kids in contact with fantastic opportunities for self-expression and personal success. We all benefit when we make the most of these performances & opportunities by taking every chance to teach our kids about what it takes to create them.

Now for the practical application for music students. If you are at a lull in practice motivation or just want another tool to inspire practice, find a really beautiful video (youtube or Instant Encore are handy websites- googling can also get you some great video gems) of somebody playing the song at hand. Then set about chatting about what made the performance a success.

-Compliment specific things about the musician: Look how relaxed her shoulders are, See how straight her bow is, Listen to how beautifully in tune it is, Marvel at how quickly he plays it, etc. Don't cherry pick things from recent lessons because kids will smell manipulation a mile away. Just be honest about what strikes you.
-Talk about why you like it, musically & emotionally: It sounds like spring to me, It makes me think of dancing frogs, This is nice and relaxing because it sounds like somebody singing, etc. So often we are focusing on fixing techniques and neglecting inspiration. I love this quote from Dr. Suzuki: "Creating desire in your child’s heart is the parent’s duty."
-For older kids, find a less skilled performance to compare, and talk about what was different, what was good and what could improve.
I would note that at any age, once you've gone over a few performances together it's best if you can let your child choose their favorite, then get them to tell you exactly what they like about it. The same can of course be done with sound-only recordings, but video is often more effective.

If you're stuck on a tune and discouragement is creeping in, find a good recording of the next song in the book. Set up a low-key performance (fancy family dinner, etc.) with that specific piece as a goal. Find a video of somebody amazing playing your child's instrument. Many big-name classical musicians have been on Sesame Street, and a ton have great websites with videos on them. Portland and the surrounding cities have libraries packed full of performance DVDs. It takes some research on your part, but once you have a handful of favorites you may find your child deciding to practice simply because there is a more visible, tangible goal.

I'll discuss more about how to encourage your child's performance skills and what kinds of feedback benefit a young musician most in later posts.

Playing music is fun, but practicing music is always going to be a responsibility. It's not always fun. Self-motivated children have learned (and sometimes need to be reminded) that there is a link between the gratification of expression and ability won through stubborn persistence. It's a lesson worth teaching!

~Dr. Miriam English Ward

Further reading & resources:
  • From The Top is an excellent show all about incredibly accomplished young classical musicians. I absolutely love it when the radio show comes on and my kids are around to listen. The host, Christopher O'Reilly, does an incredible job interviewing these musicians. There is a PBS television show and an NPR radio show, and bunches of videos online.
  • Childrens Music Website's Parent Resources Page

Lots of symphonies have excellent web sites- I've listed three below. You might make a virtual tour with your kids (incorporate geography if you are super awesome) and go all over the world looking at these resources.

The Teacher's Perspective: Easy Does It















"Always keep in mind that the goal of practice is to make things easier. When the goal of practice is to "fix things," then a child's performance tends to be limited to a hope that all the things you fixed stay fixed- not a set-up likely to give a child's musical soul the freedom it needs to emerge. ...
But if you focus practice on making things easier, the child can gradually begin to assume full ownership.
"
~Edmund Sprunger, Psychotherapist and a leader of the modern Suzuki movement in America, in Helping Parents Practice

I have a confession to make. My job as music teacher is roughly a zillion times easier than the job of the parent or home practice partner. This is particularly true when the child is under age 8 or 9, but I feel it applies just about up to the point when the kid either wins a symphony gig or starts a rock band.... at which time they are technically a colleague, not a student, and I'm probably retired and living in Bermuda.

The parent helping the child learn to practice at home is in it for the long run. They are responsible for incorporating advice from their teacher on how to keep practicing when the honeymoon is over (often after around 9 months to a year of study). They usually have to invest as much in practicing as their child does, but they don't emerge with the magical gift of music. They have to closely study their child to continually find ways to encourage and support them. They listen to a million iterations of the same song, keep track of each new challenge and technique, play the same CDs over and over. And over.

So it's with deep respect for the role of the parent that I pass along the strength of the idea in the above quote:
The best goal of practice is to give each child the ability not just to play, but to play with ease & freedom.

Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking 'Well, duh!' Of course I want my kid to play musically and freely, but the teacher gives us these nitpicky little things to improve every week. The genius of ease-centered practice is in focusing the child on something positive- something they can do. We so often get stuck in clean-up, fix-it don't-do-that mode. "That was out of tune," "Your wrist is collapsing again," "You're rushing through that song," "Don't put your thumb there."

Phrases that support easy playing are:
"Let's try that scale and see if all your fingers can find their spots three times in a row without any reminders from you (sliding fingers around or fumbling between fingers),"
"You really changed how you moved your wrist in your lesson this week. It looked so comfortable. Can you show me what you and Teacher Fran were doing?"
"It sounds so beautiful when you play it nice and steady. Can I try walking (stomping!) to your song this time?"
"Can you show me how much bow you like to use in that part of the song?"
"Can you smile while you play that?"
"Can you play it even if I make silly faces?"
"Did that feel as easy as ______?"
"Let's sing it, and then play it. (Parents, sing loud and proud- no critics here.) Did playing it feel easy as singing?"

This goal of Ease goes beyond just getting through a tune without technical errors. It's something the best professional musicians regularly practice. One of the most incredible violinists and teachers I know is David Perry, sought-after soloist and member of the Pro Arte Quartet. (Really- just listen to him here and then go out and buy anything he records immediately.) In a coaching once he told me something I've often thought of since. "You're playing the notes in this passage, and I can see you've practiced. It just doesn't sound like you've forgotten yet that it was ever hard." Really, that is the essence of great performances. Not only are the skills demonstrated and the notes logged in, but they seem as easy as the air we breathe for the truly fantastic, expressive musician.

"Music is an outburst of the soul." ~Frederick Delius (1862-1934), American Composer

This mind set is particularly enlightening to parents of students in the first six months of playing. I have been asked by a handful of parents something along the lines of, "But why does it matter if her pinkie is curved? Is it really so important that she not turn her head to look directly over at her violin hand? Isn't it enough that she can play all the notes of Perpetual Motion? Don't these details take the fun out of learning an instrument?"

When true ease of expression in playing is the goal, long term perspective is achieved. That helps clarify why teachers have such a long list of things to learn even in the earliest tunes, and why we get so excited about the beginning student's set-up. Posture and basic technique including hand positions & muscle control contribute greatly to ease of playing. To be honest, an untrained ear & eye may not always notice a difference in the simplest early pieces. However, it's never long before weaknesses of form will hold a player back. It's "cheaper" to help a musician get a rock solid technical foundation in the basic tunes. Trying to get it together just enough to squeak through a more advanced piece when bad habits are fully entrenched is more frustrating to the student in the long run.

In addition to changing the way you approach practice, there is one sure-fire key to ease of playing: Repetition (repetition, repetition, repetition etc. ad nauseum). There's so much to say on this that I'll leave it for another series of posts, but you have probably noticed even from the first lessons how much your teacher emphasizes this. Knowing how and exactly what to repeat is an art, and we'll spend time discussing it soon.
Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill. ~Shinichi Suzuki

One final thought on the art of practicing to make playing easier and practicing for ease of playing. This involves great trust of your teacher and belief that the things they are asking you to focus on as a team are the best next steps. Parents who support their child's idea that the teacher is an expert consultant are more successful in bringing the best practice out of that child. The parent is a partner and team member, able to help the kid remember what works best and help them use the teacher's advice to the utmost. This approach can be helpful in diffusing practice resistance, especially when a child is already exploring independence (a.k.a. button pushing 101). It moves responsibility to the child, yet gives them strong support.

In addition to the series on repetition in music practice, I'll write more in another post about tools for transferring responsibility to your child and encouraging them to evaluate their own work.

Further Reading:
Helping Parents Practice by Edmund Sprunger
Nurtured by Love by Shinichi Suzuki